Toyota Center's Crowd Was Loud for Rihanna, Even When She Wasn't

Rihanna's Anti tour stops by Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, March 27, 2016
Rihanna's Anti tour stops by Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, March 27, 2016
Photos by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images/Courtesy of Fenty Corp.

Rihanna, Travi$ Scott
Toyota Center
May 15, 2016

Rihanna is at her best when she’s singing. Her combination of God-given vocal talent, God-given charisma and the best songs money can buy make her an undeniable force when she steps up to a microphone. Whether it was showing off her range on “Desperado” or leading the crowd to the show’s emotional climax with “Diamonds,” she’s magic when she puts her all into her vocals.

It’s this trio of things, working in harmony, that have led her to be as popular as she is, which is more popular than pretty much anyone else in pop music. Fine, she’s not Beyoncé or Swift level, but bring your Gaga, your Grande, your Gomez, your Perry, hell, bring your Adele, line them all up, and I’m willing to bet that Rihanna fans are more rabid for their favorite than yours.

The first time she removed her hood and showed her face to the crowd, the scream in response was louder than 99 percent of the things I’ve heard at the Toyota Center. The pop was insane.

Toyota Center's Crowd Was Loud for Rihanna, Even When She Wasn't (2)

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The first part of the set, including that massive pop, was magic, and it was all Rihanna. Normally these big pop shows have a formula: a video places, the band starts up, dancers appear and do some moves, and then after a bit of buildup, the star appears and the crowd goes wild. Rihanna does not follow your favorite’s cookie-cutter formula. The start of the set was just her, her voice and her dance moves, on a stage at the back of the arena and on a catwalk that floated over the middle of the crowd. And yeah, a song like “Sex With Me” is silly, but wrapped up in that bit of stagecraft, it hit like a jackhammer.

After that, the show was a sprint. Songs came and went, most recognizable but a few getting the remix or medley treatment. Rihanna is one of those artists with more singles than stage time, but whoever planned the set did a good job navigating the many highs of her career. At around the hour mark, as the show was getting ready to head into the big, climax-y moments, it felt like the show had barely started.

And this is where we have to address the elephant in the room, because while Rihanna is magic when she puts her all into her vocals, the truth is she doesn’t really sing all that much. There are a few songs where her vocals stand front and center, “Diamonds” being the most notable and important, but there are many, many times when she dances and lets her backup singers do the heavy lifting.

Toyota Center's Crowd Was Loud for Rihanna, Even When She Wasn't (3)

So what is a critic to make of this? I’ll put it this way: If you told me you thought the show was bad, I wouldn’t argue against you. I wouldn’t agree, but I could definitely see where if you were someone who placed a lot of importance on singers actually singing, you would walk away from this show annoyed.

But if we’re going to talk about truth, we should also talk about reality, and the reality is that you would be hard-pressed to find someone who walked away from the show feeling disappointed. Wanting more, maybe, because of all the singles she doesn’t hit, but if you’re a hardcore Rihanna fan — and from where I was sitting, most of these people were — it’s hard to see why this style of performance would be anything other than pleasing.

This is Rihanna touring with what could eventually be a Vegas show: big songs, lots of dancing and energy, cool costumes, minimal but interesting stage stuff and a singer who really only has to show up to make people happy. Sure, it’s better than Britney in Vegas, but is it a concert or just a celebration of a person?

The answer is irrelevant. People still leave with a smile on their face.

But, no lie, she could make so much money in Vegas with this.

So, How Were the Openers?: I’ve seen many a DJ spin records at shows to get the crowd hyped and fail miserably. I’ve never envied anyone in that position. Chase B is not many DJs, and because of his smart song choices, he had the Toyota Center lit before either of the names on the marquee hit the stage. Plus, it’s always amazing to see thousands of folks rapping “Mo City Don.” I don’t know where Travi$ Scott gets all of his energy, but he hit the stage like one of the lightning bolts seen in the sky earlier in the day. Dude was all over the stage and occasionally even in the crowd, passing the mike to a few lucky fans who held up their end of the deal. Much like his last time at Toyota Center, it was less a set and more a live mixtape hitting on his best stuff, but at this point it’s a damn solid 30 minutes of music that never eases up and doesn’t give the crowd room to get bored. Everyone wants to cheer a hometown boy, and Scott gave the crowd someone deserving of those cheers.

Toyota Center's Crowd Was Loud for Rihanna, Even When She Wasn't (4)

Personal Bias: If you want to know how out of the loop I am when it comes to modern radio-pop, Sunday was the first time I had heard a single second of “Work.”

The Crowd: Needed a few lessons in personal space. We’re all in this together, guys, and if you want to go steal some empty seats, do you, but at least wait for the rest of us to stand up before you come barreling down the row. Oh, and leave the boas at home. TIA.

Overheard in the Crowd: “I wouldn’t mind owning a pair of pants like that,” said my +1, admiring one of the many surprisingly comfy-looking Rihanna outfits. Someone should do a paper on the influence of Star Wars and Kanye on the Anti tour’s costuming.

Random Notebook Dump: I’ve covered a lot of shows working here, but I’ve never been to one where it was raining when the doors opened. I didn’t mind the rain, because I come from a family of men who enjoy being out in it. I only mention it because it led to a cute moment during the show when one very smart person realized he could open his umbrella during “Umbrella.” Can of Coke to you, sir.

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